Thursday, 25 June 2009

The diversity-double-whammy

In the Encyclopaedia of World Cultures, Vol.4, p.196:

Although it may be true that modern literature notes several cases of “counterfeit Egyptians,” that is, people of the so-called “dangerous classes” joining bands of Gypsies or passing themselves off as Gypsies, it is equally true that foreign peripatetics often kept their identity distinct from that of the local ones.

I was puzzled by this idea that native itinerants would sometimes try to pass themselves off as Gypsies; why on earth would anyone pretend to be a Gypsy given that they were rightly despised and subject to being deported.

I think the answer can be found in John Melton’s Astrologaster written in 1620. He reports that ‘Figure casters’ (fortune tellers)

would appear in the villages in the likeness of Gypsies … and that they might be thought to come of the issue of that sun-burnt generation, they with herbs and plants … (would) discolour their faces, and then for bread, beere, bacon, cheese, but especially for money, would undertake to tell poore maid-servants their fortunes.

So the Gypsy presence contributed not only the predictable problem of petty frauds committed by that sun-burnt generation itself, it also multiplied the variety of criminal opportunity for native villains. I’d like to think that the pretend-Gypsies were dealt with as ruthlessly as the real ones and faced imprisonment or execution if they refused to leave Britain.

No comments: